Here’s the first thing you need to know about Peru – it’s vast! Look on a map, and it seems manageable, like you can pop around and easily tick off all the things to do in Peru that you have planned.
But, trust me, I found out the hard way that it is much bigger than you think and it takes a long time to get around and do things.
I gave myself more than a month on my first trip to Peru and, although I was able to visit lots of places in Peru, I didn’t get to everywhere I wanted.
This, though, is one of the things that makes this country so wonderful. There aren’t just a lot of things to do in Peru, there is a huge variety.
From the incredible Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in the mountains, to the coastal desert where you’ll find the pyramids of the first civilisation in the Americas.
There’s the dense Amazon jungle with countless adventures, and there’s hiking in the Andes – with the mountains in the north and the south of Peru offering quite different experiences.
And then there are dozens more things to do in Peru, more than you realised before you arrive, because every time you arrive somewhere new, someone tells you about something else – Journeys into national parks, to the cities of ancient civilisations, to creepy cemeteries, to sparkling lakes, to colonial treasures.
I have lots of suggestions for places to visit in Peru and each one of them is special and memorable in its own way. Unless you have months to spare, don’t assume you’ll be able to visit them all, but I hope you get a few ideas of what to do in Peru.
I have marked on this map where everything else, so you can get a sense of distance. And, remember, there are a lot of very high mountains in Peru so driving between locations much longer than the map might suggest.
As you can see, most of the interesting places to visit in Peru are south of Lima, so that’s where the majority of tourists go. But the places to visit in the north of Peru are also incredible and you’ll find fewer visitors there.
The big ones
Although I would recommend taking the time to visit a few of the cultural sights in Peru, as well as a few of the natural ones… there are certainly some blockbusters not to miss. So I wanted to start with a few of the truly best things to do in Peru!
It’s very unlikely you’re going to come to Peru and not want to visit Machu Picchu. It’s one of the most famous tourist sites in the world and for good reason!
Visiting this Incan citadel hidden in the mountains transports you to a sacred city where the rock formations are said to form a map of the stars. It has a magical feel to it, as though it is almost floating above the lands beneath it.
The remains of the city are relatively well-preserved and it’s easy to spend hours (or even the whole day) walking through them and exploring the various perspectives you get from different peaks and terraces.
One of the reasons it’s still in such a good condition is because it was abandoned by the Incas but never plundered by the Spanish invaders. It wasn’t until 1911 that it was found by American explorer Hiram Bingham and the process of restoring parts of it began.
Of course, one of the other most famous (but related) things to do in Peru is the Inca Trail, and arriving at Machu Picchu, entering through the sun gate just as the day begins, is a special experience.
There are lots of different options for walking the Inca Trail but the classic one takes about four days. It’s become very popular and there are limited permits for the trail.
So, it’s also worth mentioning that there are other treks you can do that will take you to Machu Picchu (well, to the general area, at least).
The Inca Trail is well-known but it’s crowded and has lost some of its spiritual atmosphere. You may want to consider the Salkantay Trek instead, or even the beautiful Lares Trek, which focuses on untouched natural landscapes and small local villages.
Separate to Machu Picchu, the huge network of Incan trails throughout South America have been listed as one of Peru’s World Heritage Sites.
Many of Peru’s ancient civilisations have left us with mysteries, but perhaps none is more mysterious than the Nazca Lines, about 350 kilometres south of Lima.
The Nazca Lines are enormous markings made in the desert. Some are just straight lines or geometric shapes, but others are recognisable as animals like a spider, a monkey, or a hummingbird. The largest figures are about 200 metres long.
There is a viewing platform on the highway where you can see a few of the lines up close, but you really don’t get a good perspective. You’re best taking one of the many daily scenic flights to see all the shapes properly.
When you’re up in the sky, the Nazca Lines really are astounding, and you can see why some people believe they were made by (or for) aliens.
Rather than just rush through, I would also recommend a side trip to the Chauchilla Cemetery, which is about 25 kilometres away from the town of Nazca. In the excavated graves, archaeologists have found skeletons, some still with clothes and hair.
They’re posed at the cemetery in a rather creepy way – especially considering some of them are 2000 years old!
Although it’s a very broad thing to recommend, I want to also mention the Amazon Jungle as one of the best places to visit in Peru.
It makes up a significant portion of Peru geographically but tourists tend to only spend a small fraction of their time there. I tend to think this is because the things Peru is (rightfully) the most famous for are in the mountains or by the coast.
Having said that, the Peruvian Amazon is amazing and visiting it while you’re in the country is definitely a great way to see some of this epic jungle (especially if you’re not going to other parts of South America).
There are lots of access points for the Amazon in Peru but the easiest one is the city of Puerto Maldonado, which is relatively close to Cusco. A bus trip takes 12 hours or it’s just 30 minutes by plane.
From Puerto Maldonado, there are lots of different tour agencies or jungle lodges that you can use to explore the Amazon. While you can do it independently if you rent a vehicle, I would suggest going with something organised. They’ll take you to all the best spots to see the animals.
The most famous things to do in Peru tend to be found outside the country’s large cities – but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy your time in the urban centres. Rather than just use them as transit hubs, look a bit deeper to find their treasures.
You’re almost certainly going to pass through Lima on your trip to Peru, especially if you fly in from overseas, and I think it’s at least worth a couple of days.
Some tourists prefer to spend most of their time in the Miraflores district, which is rather upmarket and safer than other parts. Because there’s a large foreign population, there are lots of modern restaurants and bars, and it’s right on the water.
But to see the main sights, you should head to the historic centre of Lima, which has been designated as a World Heritage Site and has an incredible collection of historical buildings.
Start at the Plaza de Armas where you’ll spot the Presidential Palace, before heading over to the Church and Convent of San Francisco. From there, wind your way through the streets to see the original colonial layout.
There are heaps of museums in Lima and you’ll easily be able to find something of interest. If you just have time for one, I would recommend the Larco Museums which has great exhibits about the country’s cultures (and a room dedicated to erotic art!).
Another area in Lima to check out is Barranco, which has some historical elements but is known these days as the artistic and cool nightlife area – the hipster neighbourhood of Lima if you like.
While you’re in Lima, I would also recommend trying some Peruvian food like a ceviche and try to drink a Pisco Sour as well.
Peru’s second-largest city, Arequipa, is often overlooked by tourists – but it’s a wonderful place worth a couple of days of exploration, especially if you’re heading in this direction anyway.
Arequipa has been dubbed the ‘White City’ because the historic centre is mostly built out of sillar, a type of white volcanic rock. Walking through the grid pattern of streets, the houses and shops almost seem to sparkle in the sun.
The architecture is mostly Spanish colonial and you can see the best examples around the central Plaza de Armas, with the cathedral, porticoes, and other neoclassical buildings. Arequipa has been named a World Heritage Site because of the colonial architecture here.
Arequipa is also a good base to take some trips to the natural wonders just on its doorstep, which I’ll mention shortly.
The city of Cusco, 3400 metres above sea level, is more than just the jumping-off point for trips into the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. There’s a fair amount to see in the historic centre and you should leave enough time to explore.
Cusco was the heart of the Incan civilisation, the capital from which roads led across the empire. The old part of the city, with the foundations laid by the Incas, is shaped like a puma. But it’s hard to spot these days.
That’s because what defines Cusco these days is the colonial legacy that consumed the city after the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. The main sights here are the grand Baroque buildings – churches, monasteries, manor houses – built by the Spaniards on top of Incan structures.
Still, many of the museums are about the indigenous cultures that were here before the Europeans came and there are lots of ways to interact with the local communities.
Cusco is also a great base for tours that go into the region on day trips or for overnight journeys. One of the most popular trips these days is to the Rainbow Mountains, the peaks made from colourful sediments that were only ‘discovered’ a few years ago.
The city of Trujillo, on the north coast of Peru, is generally as far up the country as tourists go unless they’re continuing on to Ecuador.
While Trujillo is not as impressive architecturally as somewhere like Arequipa, it does have sections of glamorous colonial-era buildings that hark back to centuries past. But the main reason it’s worth visiting is to see the heritage sites in the region.
One of those sites is Chan Chan, which I’ll talk about later. Another important one is Huacas del Moche. They are two large pyramid temples that were built by the Moche civilisation that lived here before the Chimu.
The temples are amazingly sophisticated, with innovative engineering and colourful artwork. They are well worth a visit and complement a trip to Chan Chan nicely.
Another lovely spot in the area is the small surfer village of Huanchaco, which is a good place for a bit of a rest.
When I talked about the Amazon earlier, I said Puerto Maldonado was the most popular way to access the jungle. Another option, a more adventurous one, is Iquitos. In the northeast of Peru, is the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road (you either fly in or come along the river).
Iquitos is a fascinating city that never lets you forget you’re in the Amazon, with the water and the jungle encroaching into the urban centre. But there are also colonial-era buildings (particularly churches) mixed with modern mansions and traditional huts.
For many people, Iquitos will be just the launching spot for a boat trip or another type of expedition into the Amazon. But there are more than enough fascinating sights here to make it a destination in its own right.
I love the cultural heritage of Peru, with centuries (actually, millennia!) of civilisations that have made this land home. From the beaches to the mountains, there are some incredible cultural places to visit in Peru.
One of the most popular cultural hubs is the Sacred Valley, about 15 kilometres from Cusco. It was an important area for the Incas and you’ll find quite a few ruins here, including the citadels of Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
Many local communities have established workshops for crafts and other traditional artworks. You’ll find quite a few women’s weaving collectives, for instance, and they are interesting to visit and a good place to buy a few warm things for a mountain trek.
But you’ll also find small colonial towns here that give you an insight into the way the region changed after the Spanish arrived and vanquished the Inca Empire.
And increasingly there are other adventure activities and tours here catering for the large number of visitors who come through on their way to Machu Picchu – with everything from quad biking to paragliding or ziplining.
Heading north of Lima, the first significant site you’ll reach is Caral-Supe, about 200 kilometres away. Although it’s not particularly famous, it’s really significant.
In fact, the ancient city of Caral was the first civilisation of the Americas and was founded about 5000 years ago. The people had advanced architecture skills and built large pyramids here (at about the same time as the Egyptians, keep in mind!)
When you visit Caral-Supe today, there is still a fair amount to see, although it is ancient and hasn’t been as well preserved as similar sites in Egypt. But a guide will take you around the site to see the pyramids and other important structures use for worship and civic ceremonies.
It can be quite tricky to get to Caral-Supe independently, so you may want to take a tour or hire a car.
Chavin de Huantar
From Huaraz, I would recommend a day trip to see the archaeological site of Chavin de Huantar. It was the spiritual centre of the Chavin civilisation, which lived here about 3000 years ago
The Chavin were a fascinating people who took hallucinogenic drugs, did human sacrifices, and created beautiful artwork. In the ruins of Chavin de Huantar, you’ll see some of the carved stone art they made, including a very cool jaguar head.
The temples and other monuments here are built into green hills that are surrounded by mountains. It’s quite a dramatic setting and a memorable experience to stand amongst it and imagine the debauched ceremonies that would have once taken place here.
Chavin de Huantar is another place that’s hard to reach independently but there are day tours from Huaraz that are easy and affordable.
On the coast of northern Peru is an incredible site that was once the largest city in the Americas until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. But it doesn’t look like a city in the way we might imagine it.
Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu people who controlled a vast empire that stretched for about 1000 kilometres down the coast. And they built this capital out of mud – or adobe bricks, to be more specific.
There were thousands of buildings with palaces and temples, and homes for about 30,000 people. And, it all looked like an enormous sandcastle because of the way it was made from mud and then smoothed over.
When you visit Chan Chan, you’ll see much is still here, although it is threatened by erosion because the walls can be washed away so easily. But it’s another one of the incredible places to see in Peru that is often neglected by tourists because there’s so much attention on Machu Picchu.
Chan Chan is on the edge of the city of Trujillo, which you may remember I mentioned earlier.
Of course, many of the best things to do in Peru involve the country’s natural sights, with the landscapes truly spectacular (and varied). Even if you’re short on time, I recommend making the effort to get out to one of these regions.
Huascaran National Park
While it’s the Andes of southern Peru that normally get much of the attention (because of the treks to Machu Picchu), the northern Andes are actually much more dramatic and naturally beautiful. They have become a popular hiking region for the more adventurous travellers.
This particular section of the mountain range is called the Cordillera Blanca and the jewel in the crown is Huascaran National Park. It has a number of famous lakes and hikes – and the most famous is the hike to Laguna 69.
You can do the hike to the Laguna 69 lake as a day trip, climbing up through the changing landscapes until you reach the stunning glacial lake with its piercing blue colours and snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. It’s a difficult walk, but worth it!
There’s also a popular long-distance hike called the Santa Cruz trek, which will take about four days and is absolutely spectacular. It’s certainly much better than anything you’ll find in the South.
And, for the very adventurous, there are lots of other options that can take even longer, including the Huayhuash Circuit.
To visit Huascaran National Park, I would suggest basing yourself in the city of Huaraz. From here, you can either do a day trip or two, or get prepared to go on a longer hike. However you do it, I think this is one of the best things to do in Peru if you like hiking.
Salinas and Aguada Blanca
This is certainly one of the lesser known natural sites in Peru but it’s fantastic and very easy to visit from Arequipa. I suspect the only reason it isn’t more famous is because most travellers don’t have time to visit – but you may want to consider a stop here.
Visiting the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve takes you on a journey through almost 3000 metres of altitude. There are high imposing volcanoes, dry desert-like landscapes, expansive grasslands with local animals, and wetlands full of birds.
One of the main features for visitors are the strange rock shapes that have been created by wind erosion and now form a maze of paths through small canyons, across cliff tops, and around natural sculptures.
Most people who visit the reserve do so as part of a tour to Colca Canyon, and there are a few good options from Arequipa.
Also near Arequipa, Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world (and twice as deep as the US’s Grand Canyon). It’s a natural wonder in itself but also the centre of a region with incredible landscapes.
Centuries ago, this was at the heart of the Incan agricultural industry. Terraces carved into the canyon were used to grow food that was then sent across the vast distances to feed the great empire. Different crops were planted at different altitudes, depending on where they would grow best.
One of the main attractions when you visit Colca Canyon are the Andean condors, which emerge from their nests and glide above the canyon looking for food near the Cruz del Condor lookout.
Although some people do a trip here just to see the condors and then leave again, I would recommend you spend longer (even overnight) at Colca Canyon. There are good tours that leave from Arequipa that will arrange everything for you.
Right on the border of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and it offers visitors a blend of natural beauty and ancient culture. In many Andean traditions, the lake was thought to be the birthplace of the sun, for example.
Puno is the base to explore Lake Titicaca and there are boat trips that will take you to the islands in the middle of the water where you’ll see centuries-old traditions, including weaving and other crafts with reeds.
Learning about the local communities, either by visiting their island or with festivals, is a highlight of a visit here. But you’ll also be stunned by the deep blue of the lake and the intense stars at night.
As well as traditional cultures that are still practiced today, there are archaeological sites that allow you to learn about the history of the region.
I hope these recommendations have given you some inspiration or helped you plan your trip. If you have any other suggestions for places to visit in Peru, please drop me a note in the comments section below!